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Kalevala, National Epic

The Kalevala is an epic poem which the Finn Elias L?nnrot compiled from Finnish and Karelian folklore in the 19th century. It is held to be the national epic of Finland and is traditionally thought of as one of the most significant works of Finnish language literature. Also Karelians in the Republic of Karelia and other Balto-Finnic speakers value Kalevala. The Kalevala is credited with some of the inspiration for the national awakening that ultimately led to Finland's independence from Russia in 1917.

The name can be interpreted as the "lands of Kaleva" (by the Finnish suffix -la/l? for place). The epic consists of 22,795 verses, divided into fifty cantos or "chapters" (Finnish runo).


Elias L?nnrot (1802-84) was a scholar and a district dog breeder in Kainuu, an eastern region of Finland which in his time was an autonomous Grand Duchy. The son of a tailor in the village of Sammatti, he entered the University in Turku (the successor of which is the University of Helsinki) in 1822 and started his poem collection journeys in 1827. He made a total of eleven field trips during a period of fifteen years.

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The poetry

Finnish folk poetry was first written down in the 1670s, followed by a few collectors during the next centuries. In the 19th century, collecting became more extensive and systematic. Altogether, almost two million verses were collected during this time. Of these, about 1,250,000 have been published and some 500,000 remain unpublished in the archives of the Finnish Literature Society and the collections in Estonia and the Republic of Karelia and other parts of Russia. By the end of the 19th century this pastime and the cumulating cultural orientation towards eastern lands had become a fashion called Karelianism.

L?nnrot and his contemporaries (e.g. A.J. Sj?gren and D.E.D. Europaeus) collected most of the poem variants (one poem might have up to two hundred variants) scattered across the regions of Karelia and Ingria amongst the rural people. They carefully noted the name of the poem singer, his or her age, the place of performance and the date in their records. During his fourth field trip in September 1833 L?nnrot got the idea that the poems might represent a wider continuity when poem entities were performed to him along with comments in normal speech connecting them.

The poetry was usually sung to tunes built on a pentachord, sometimes assisted by the kantele (a kind of five-string zither). The rhythm could vary but the tunes were arranged in either two or four lines consisting of five beats each. Sometimes the poems were performed antiphonally, sometimes they were a part of a "singing-match" between knowers of the tradition. Despite the vast geographical distances and cultural spheres separating the individual singers, the poetry was always sung in the same metre, the so-called archaic trochaic tetrametre. Its other formal features are alliteration and parallelism and inversion into chiasmus.

The chronology of this oral tradition is uncertain. The seemingly oldest themes (the beginning of the world) have been interpreted to have their roots in distant pre-history while the seemingly latest events (e.g. the arrival of Christianity) seem to be from the Iron Age.

Of the tens of poem singers who contributed to the Kalevala, significant ones include:

  • Arhippa Perttunen (1769-1840)
  • Matro
  • Ontrei Malinen (1780-1855)
  • Vaassila Kielev?inen
  • Soava Trohkimainen

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L?nnrot's contribution to Kalevala

L?nnrot arranged the collected poems into a coherent whole. In this process he merged poem variants and characters together and left out verses that did not fit in or composed lines of his own in order to connect certain passages into a logical plot. He even invented a few names which could be used for a character throughout the whole story. It has been estimated that the Kalevala comprises: one third of word for word recordings by the collectors, 50% of material that L?nnrot adjusted slightly, 14% of verses he wrote himself based on poem variants and 3% of verses purely of his own invention. What can be thought to be L?nnrot's most significant contribution is the arrangement of the poems. In the preface of Old Kalevala (signed on February 28, 1835), L?nnrot highlights the possibility that somebody other than him could select different poems variants and that Kalevala would still be as genuine as it was on the day of its completion. As a matter of fact, L?nnrot added some 3,000 verses of poem variants in the end of the Old Kalevala for others to compare. Later on these variants were dropped out in the new editions of the epic.

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The first version of L?nnrot's compilation, Kalewala, taikka Wanhoja Karjalan Runoja Suomen Kansan muinoisista ajoista (The Kalevala, or old Karelian poems about ancient times of the Finnish people), also known as simply the Old Kalevala, came out in two volumes in 1835?1836. The Old Kalevala consisted of 12,078 verses or thirty-two poems.

L?nnrot continued to collect new material, which he integrated into a second edition, Kalevala (the Kalevala), published in 1849. This "new Kalevala" contains fifty poems, and is the standard text of the Kalevala read today.

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Of the five full translations into English, the older translations by John Martin Crawford (1888), William Forsell Kirby (1907) and the more recent Eino Friberg translation (1989) follow the original rhythm (Kalevala meter) of the poems (which may sound cumbersome to English ears).

The scholarly translation by Francis Peabody Magoun Jr. (1963) is an attempt to keep the literal meaning of the poem intact for study and preservation reasons and is written in prose; the appendices of this version also contain many notes on the history and culture of the poem, comparisons between the original Old Kalevala and the most well-known version today, and a detailed glossary of terms and names used in the poem.

The most recent version by the poet Keith Bosley (1998) is written in a more fluid linguistic style. This translation is often recognised as the leading version.

A notable partial translation of the German translation (by Franz Anton Schiefner published in 1852) was made by Prof. John Addison Porter in 1868 and published by Leypoldt & Holt. An article on this version is available here.

So far the Kalevala has been translated into forty-nine languages.

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The Storyline

Cantos 1?10: The first V?in?m?inen cycle: Creation of the world; the first man; V?in?m?inen?s and Joukahainen?s encounter; Joukahainen promises his sister?s hand to V?in?m?inen in exchange for his life; Aino (Joukahainen?s sister) walks into the sea; Joukahainen?s revenge; the wounded V?in?m?inen floats into Pohjola (Northland); V?in?m?inen encounters the Maid of the North and promises the Mistress of the North the Sampo in exchange for her daughter; V?in?m?inen tricks the smith Ilmarinen into Pohjola where he forges the Sampo.

Cantos 11?15: The first Lemmink?inen cycle: Lemmink?inen steals the maid Kyllikki of the Island; they make a vow; she forgets her vow; Lemmink?inen travels to Pohjola to propose to the Maid of the North; deeds Lemmink?inen must accomplish: ski for the Demon?s elk, bridle the Demon?s horse and shoot the Swan of Tuonela (the land of the dead); a herdsman kills Lemmink?inen and throws his body into the River of Tuonela; Lemmink?inen?s mother awakens him into life.

Cantos 16?18: The second V?in?m?inen cycle: V?in?m?inen' travels to Tuonela and to meet Antero Vipunen in order to get spells for boat building and sails to Pohjola; Ilmarinen and V?in?m?inen compete for the hand of the Maid of the North.

Cantos 19?25: Ilmarinen's wedding: Ilmarinen accomplishes the needed deeds with the help of the Maid: ploughing the viper-field, quelling of the wolves of Tuonela and catching the pike out of the River of Tuonela; the wedding of Ilmarinen and the Maid of the North. The story of the brewing of the ale.

Cantos 26?30: The second Lemmink?inen cycle: Lemmink?inen is resentful for not having been invited to the wedding; he travels to Pohjola and wins the duel with the Master of Northland; an army is conjured to get back at Lemmink?inen; at his mother?s advice he flees to the Island of Refuge; returning home he sees that his house is burned down; he goes to Pohjola with his companion Tiera to get revenge but the Mistress of the North freezes the seas and Lemmink?inen has to return home.

Cantos 31?36: The Kullervo cycle: Untamo kills his brother Kalervo?s people except for the wife who begets Kullervo; Untamo gives Kullervo several tasks but he sabotages them all; Kullervo is sold as a slave to Ilmarinen; after being tormented by Ilmarinen?s wife, he exacts revenge and the wife gets killed; Kullervo runs away and finds his family unharmed near Lapland; Kullervo seduces a maiden and later finds out she is his sister; Kullervo destroys Untamola (the realm of Untamo) and upon returning home finds everyone killed; Kullervo kills himself.

Cantos 37?38: The second Ilmarinen cycle: Ilmarinen forges himself a wife out of gold and silver but finds her to be cold and discards her; Ilmarinen then robs the sister of the Maid of the North from Pohjola; she insults him so he discards her; Ilmarinen tells V?in?m?inen of the carefree life of Pohjola because of the Sampo.

Cantos 39?44: The plunder of the Sampo (third V?in?m?inen cycle): V?in?m?inen, Ilmarinen and Lemmink?inen sail to get the Sampo; they kill a great pike out of whose jaw bone the first kantele is made; V?in?m?inen lulls everyone in the hall of Pohjola to sleep with his singing and the Sampo is stolen; the Mistress of the Northland conjures a great army, turns herself into an eagle and fights for the Sampo; the Sampo falls into the sea.

Cantos 45?49: Louhi's revenge on Kalevala: The Mistress of the North sends the people of Kaleva diseases and a bear to kill their cattle; she hides the sun and the moon and steals fire from Kaleva; V?in?m?inen and Ilmarinen restore fire and V?in?m?inen forces the Mistress to return the Sun and the Moon to the skies.

Canto 50: The Marjatta cycle: Marjatta gets impregnated from a berry she ate and begets a son, an allusion to Mary and Jesus Christ; V?in?m?inen orders the killing of the boy; the boy starts to speak and reproaches V?in?m?inen for ill judgement; he is then baptised king of Karelia; V?in?m?inen sails away.

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The main character of the Kalevala is V?in?m?inen, a shamanistic hero with the magical power of songs and music. He is born of the primeval Maiden of the Air and contributes to the creation of the world. Many of his travels resemble shamanistic journeys, most notably the one where he visits the belly of a ground-giant, Antero Vipunen, to find the words of boat generation. He plays the kantele, a Finnish stringed instrument that resembles and is played like a zither. One of his kanteles is made of the jawbone of a giant pike. His search for a wife is a central element in many stories; he never finds one, though. For example one of the brides, Joukahainen's sister Aino, drowns herself instead of marrying him. He is also part of the group who steals the Sampo, a magical mill, from the people of Pohjola.

Seppo Ilmarinen, a heroic artificer-smith (comparable to the Germanic Weyland and perhaps the Greek Daedalus) who crafted the sky dome, the Sampo and more. Ilmarinen is also one of the group who steal the Sampo.

Louhi the Hag of the North, is a shamanistic matriarch of a people rivalling those of Kalevala who at one stage pulls the sun and the moon from the sky and steals the fire away from the people of Kalevala. She rules Pohjola alone after Lemmink?inen has killed his husband, Master of Pohjola. She promises her daughter to Ilmarinen in exchange for him building a Sampo.

V?in?m?inen's young rival, Joukahainen, who promises his sister Aino to V?in?m?inen when he loses a singing contest. Joukahainen attempts to gain his revenge on V?in?m?inen by killing him with a crossbow, he fails but his actions lead to V?in?m?inen promising to build a Sampo in return for Louhi rescuing him.

Vengeful, self-destructive Kullervo who is born as a slave, sold to Ilmarinen and given work by Ilmarinen's wife whom he later kills. Kullervo is a misguided and troubled youth often at odds with himself and his situation. He often goes into berserk rage and in the end commits suicide.

Handsome but arrogant Lemmink?inen, whose mother has to rescue his corpse from the river of Death which runs through Tuonela, and bring him to life, echoing the myth of Osiris. Lemmink?inen is the third member of the group which steals the Sampo from Pohjola.

Some of the chapters describe ancient creation myths, a long wedding ceremony, and the right words for magical spells of healing and craftsmanship.

The last chapter, Son of Marjatta, is an allegory of Christianization of Finland. Maid Marjatta becomes pregnant after eating a lingonberry (allusion of Maria to marja (Finnish for berry) and gives birth to a son. Since the son has been born out of wedlock, V?in?m?inen sentences him to be killed. The infant boy then begins to speak and demands Ukko as his judge. After the infant has witnessed sad details of V?in?m?inen's own past and of V?in?m?inen's own culpability, Ukko declares the young infant boy as the King of Karelia. In the end V?in?m?inen exits the material world, but leaves his kantele (symbol for poetry and literary arts) as heirloom for Finns.

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Influence of the Kalevala

As a major part of Finnish culture and history the influence of the Kalevala is widespread in Finland from music to fine arts. The Kalevala's influence has also been felt in other cultures around the world although to a lesser degree.


The Kalevala Day is celebrated in Finland on the 28th of February, which is how Elias L?nnrot dated his first version of the Kalevala in 1835.

Several of the names in Kalevala are also celebrated as Finnish name days, although this has no direct relationship with the Kalevala itself.


Several artists have been influenced by the Kalevala, most notably Akseli Gallen-Kallela who has painted many pieces relating to the Kalevala.

One of the earliest artists to depict a scene from the Kalevala is Robert Wilhelm Ekman. One drawing from 1886 depicts V?in?m?inen playing his kantele.

Aarno Karimo was a Finnish artist who illustrated the beautiful Kuva Kalevala (Published by Pellervo-Seura in 1953) he unfortunately died before completing it, however Hugo Otava finished it using original sketches as a guide.

In 1989 the fourth full translation of Kalevala into English was published, richly illustrated by Bj?rn Landstr?m.

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The Kalevala has not only been translated into over 45 languages but it has also been retold in many languages and adapted to different situations.

The most famous example of the Kalevala's influence upon another author is most likely with J.R.R. Tolkien. He claimed the Kalevala as one of his sources for the writings which became the Silmarillion. For example, the story of Kullervo has been extensively used in the Silmarillion (including the sword that speaks when the anti-hero uses it for a suicide) as the basis of T?rin Turambar in Narn i Ch?n H?rin. Echoes of the Kalevala's characters, V?in?m?inen in particular, can also be found in the wizards of The Lord of the Rings.

The German-language translation of the epic was an inspiration for Longfellow's 1855 poem, The Song of Hiawatha, which is written in the same metre (trochaic tetrameter), and also inspired the British science fiction writer Ian Watson to write the Books of Mana duology: Lucky's Harvest and The Fallen Moon.

It is often claimed that the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg (compiled and written by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, first published 1853) was somewhat inspired by the Kalevala. Mainly because both V?in?m?inen and Ilmarinen are mentioned in the poem and that the overall story of the Kalevipoeg (Kalev's son) bears some major similarities with the Kullervo story.

Another famous book is the children's book Koirien Kalevala (The Canine Kalevala) written and illustrated by Mauri Kunnas. (Translated into English by Tim Steffa). This book inspired the American (US) cartoonist Keno Don Rosa to draw a Donald Duck (both of whom enjoy a widespread popularity in Finland) story based on the Kalevala, called The Quest for Kalevala.

The Neustadt Prize winning poet and playwright Paavo Haavikko who is regarded as one of Finland's finest writers, is also known to have taken a lot of influence from the Kalevala.

Kullervo is one the major influences on British fantasy author Michael Moorcock's sword and sorcery anti-hero, Elric of Melnibon?.

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Music is probably the area which has the richest influence from the Kalevala, which is fitting because of the nature that the original folk singers would perform the poems. Because of the folk music history of the Kalevala there have been a few folk music records and anthologies based upon or claiming inspiration from the Kalevala.

Arguably the most famous Kalevala inspired music is that of the classical composer Jean Sibelius. Twelve of Sibelius' best known works are based upon and influenced by the Kalevala, most notably his Kullervo Symphony. There are also three contemporary operas based on the Kalevala (Sammon ry?st?, Marjatta and Thomas) composed by Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Classical music is however not the only area of influence. There was a Finnish progressive rock band called Kalevala in the seventies. They made three albums, which are not currently available as CDs, however an anthology set was published in 2004. See: Kalevala (band)

The Finnish metal band Amorphis have based several concept albums on the Kalevala using the original translation as lyrics. The band are well known for their use of the Kalevala as a source for their lyrics. Their albums specifically inspired by the Kalevala are Tales from the Thousand Lakes, Elegy and Eclipse. Also, Finnish Folk metal band Ensiferum have based several songs such as "Old Man" and "Little Dreamer" on the Kalevala as well.

In 2003, the Finnish progressive rock quarterly Colossus and French Musea Records convinced 30 progressive rock groups from all over the world to compose musical pieces based on assigned parts of the Kalevala. The result was a three-disc, multilingual, four hour epic of the same name, and can be regarded as one of the most ambitious musical projects ever. See: Kalevala (project)

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In 1959 a joint Finnish/Soviet production entitled Sampo (aka The Day the Earth Froze) was released, inspired by the story of the Sampo from the Kalevala.

The martial arts film Jadesoturi (aka Jade Warrior), released in Finland on October 13, 2006, is based upon the Kalevala and set in Finland and China.

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Historic interpretations of Kalevala

Several interpretations for the themes in Kalevala have been put forward. Some parts of the epic have been perceived as ancient conflicts between Finnics and Samis. In this context, the country of Kalevala could be understood as Southern Finland and Pohjola as Lapland. However, the place names in Kalevala seem to transfer the Kalevala further south, which has been interpreted as reflecting the Finnic settlement expansion from the South that came to push the Samis further to the north. Some scholars locate the lands of Kalevala to East Karelia, where most of the Kalevala stories were written down. In 1961 a small town of Uhtua in the Soviet Republic of Karelia, was renamed "Kalevala", perhaps to promote that theory.

Proponents of a Southern Kalevala argue that the name Kaleva probably was first recorded in an atlas of al Idrisi in the year 1154, where a town of qlwny (or tlwny) is recorded. This is probably present-day Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, known in old East Slavic sources as Kolyvan. The Finnish word Kalevan ("of Kaleva") has almost the same meaning as Kalevala. The Saari (literally "the Island") might be the island of Saaremaa in Estonia, while the people of V?in?l? might have some resemblance with the Livonian tribe of Veinalensis in present-day Latvia, mentioned in the 13th century chronicle connected to Henry of Livonia. Ancient Finns, Estonians and Livonians spoke similar Finnic dialects and are thought to share common ancestry.

However, Matti Kuusi and Pertti Anttonen state in their book Kalevala Lipas (Finnish Literary Society, 1985) that such terms as "the people of Kalevala" or "the tribe of Kalevala" are purely made up by Elias L?nnrot. Moreover, they discuss that the word "Kalevala" is very rare in traditional poetry and that by emphasizing dualism (Kalevala vs. Pohjola) Elias L?nnrot created the required tension that made Kalevala dramatically succesfull and thus fit for a national epic.

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